It’s easy to think that creativity is an inherent gift. Or that creativity means having fancy fonts and graphics. I love my fonts, but that’s not what creativity is. In teaching, creativity is all about your ideas and how you make them relevant and meaningful to your students. I always strive to create learning experiences for my students. No lesson is perfect, and I don’t have these incredible experiences every single day, but when I approach my lesson or unit planning with the idea of an experience in mind, I find that I think of better ideas that translate into more creative lessons.
The creative process is messy and discursive and spontaneous and unique to each person. Sometimes, it feels more like that book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. But that’s okay. I’m not going to act like I can teach you the process. I don’t even know if it’s a thing. But I am going to give you a few of my most practical tips, ones that have helped me design some of my best lessons.
1. FIND A GOOD METAPHOR
Robert Frost summed up creativity in a way that I think is perfect for teaching: “An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.” A good metaphor–it really can be that simple. Creativity is all about new connections, how you can represent your content or skill with something else that relates to or excites students. I always like to say that I love “tricking” my students into learning. It’s no magic though–it’s just finding a sneaky metaphor to make my lesson more engaging.
So if you’re stuck searching for your next lesson idea, start here. Think metaphorically. How can your represent your content or skills with something your students are interested in? Something from the real world? It’s a simple example, but I relate different parts of the writing process to a “show.” All of my writing workshop minilessons are designed around this theme: the thesis statement is the star of the show, the pieces of textual evidence are the guest speakers, the conclusion is the “mic drop,” etc. It’s not a crazy, creative room transformation, but it’s just the right amount of creativity to make the writing process more relevant for students…which brings me to my next tip!
2. MAKE IT REAL
If you can’t think of a metaphor, find a way to make your content “real.” Whether this is making connections that are relevant to students’ lives and interests or planning a more authentic experience, it’s critical. If you can’t answer a student’s question of “Why do we need to learn this?” then a) you’re going to stall in your lesson planning and b) your students will see right through your lesson.
Start your planning process with the “Why?” question and work backwards from there. Instead of being annoyed when students ask the question, anticipate it and embrace it. There’s nothing I love more than launching into an impassioned “Actually, you can use these skills when…” speech.
One of my all-time favorite lessons happens to be one of my most authentic lessons: A mock trial! I can emphasize the important of citing and analyzing textual evidence for weeks, but some students don’t *get it* until they are in front of the class, passionately pleading their case to a jury of their peers.
Another simple way to “make it real” for your adolescent students is by involving their interests. Are your students addicted to social media like mine are? Try out character Instagram posts! Would they much rather listen to hip hop music than read poetry? Give them this engaging “Hip Hop or Harlem Renaissance” quiz to introduce poetry!
When you embrace the challenge of “selling” your content to your students, you’ll find your creativity…and you’ll have a lot more fun! But creative lesson planning doesn’t mean you have to slave over your plans for hours and do more work. In fact, the answer often lies in the opposite!
3. STOP DOING ALL OF THE HARD WORK AND FLIP IT ON YOUR STUDENTS
I once had a professor who always said, “The students should be working harder than you.” I never believed her; I thought it was one of those things that sounded great in theory, it was too good to be true. But it works. Seriously. If it sounds too simple, that’s because it is. When you flip a teacher-led lesson to make it more student-centered, it forces you to think of new, innovative ideas. Better yet, it forces your students to be more creative. You might have to be sneaky in how you structure the lesson to get the students doing all of the hard work, but once you’ve engineered the conditions in which they can learn, your job is done. During the lesson, you can float around and watch the magic happen.
If you’re ready to make learning more student-centered and infuse creativity, I would recommend you try incorporating more learning stations. The next time you’re tempted to use a PowerPoint lecture, ask yourself, “Can I flip this into learning stations?” Usually, the answer is yes! Better yet, you can probably use your existing materials to form stations, so you won’t have to totally reinvent the wheel.
For more information on designing creative, engaging learning stations, check out all of my blog posts here:
- 10 Reasons to Implement Learning Stations in the Secondary Classroom
- How to Create Learning Stations: The Design Process
- How to Facilitate Successful Learning Stations in the Secondary Classroom
If you’d like to save yourself some time creating your next round of learning stations, check out this bundle of pre- and post-reading stations for any novel.
4. INCORPORATE MOVEMENT
Our students need to MOVE, even our “big kids” in high school. Research has shown that incorporating movement into your lessons helps to engage learners. Plus, we all know how necessary it is for our restless students to put that energy to work in the classroom. Structuring movement into a lesson can be challenging, but it can also be as simple as using the “4 corners” strategy or doing a “line-up” discussion. A “4 corners” discussion involves asking an essential question and then designating each corner of the room as a different response: strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. A “line-up” discussion involves asking a discussion and having students line up to indicate their agreement/disagreement. In this case, the left right side of the line would be “strongly disagree” and the far right side would be “strongly agree.”
Another opportunity to creatively incorporate kinesthetic learning is through a “question trail” activity, which takes students on a quest of multiple choice questions that are posted around the classroom. If you’d like more information on creating your own question trail, check out this blog post. To save some time, check out this create-your-own question trail template or this growing collection of all of my favorite ELA question trails.(For even more creative ideas on how to incorporate movement in your next lesson, check out my friend Ashley’s round-up blog post here.
This is the English teacher in me saying this, but I really believe it’s true: READ! I often think of connections when I am reading the news or reading my own novels for fun. You have to expose yourself to information and ideas in order to create new connections! Creativity is not always about creating your own original ideas; it’s also about synthesizing other ideas to create your own unique lesson. Also, I know I said reading, but I’ve definitely thought of lesson ideas while watching Netflix. I’ve used clips from The Office to illustrate logical fallacies, and I used a few scenes of Black Mirror as inspiration for synthesis essays on if society has taken technology too far. If you keep your mind open when you are reading, listening to podcasts or the radio, or watching TV, you’ll be surprised at what connections you can find.
I love using Pocket to curate non-fiction articles that I know I want to use in class. Google Keep is another great option for “brain dumping” resources and brainstorming connections for your next unit, too.
This tip is common sense, but we all know that 2 or 3 or 4 brains are better than one. I think many teachers believe in this myth that creative teaching is always making your own resources, starting from scratch.
But I am here to tell you that YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALL. You don’t have to create All of The Things! And even if you like creating your own materials, like I do, it’s 100% okay if you’re in a creative rut or a teaching funk. It’s natural, because we’re all human. Don’t stress. Just fake it until you make it…your students are not going to know the difference.
When you find ideas on Pinterest, Instagram, or Teachers Pay Teachers, it might encourage you to think of your other content in a unique way. Sometimes you just need to see what’s possible and try it out with your students.
For a quick, free idea that you can apply to your next novel or short story unit, check out this freebie from my TPT. It’s a blame chart activity for “The Crucible” that asks students to break down blame into a pie chart, and then justify their percentages with textual evidence. I’ve used this same chart with The Great Gatsby and other texts, and I’m sure you can find a way to apply it, too!
7. FIND WHAT WORKS AND SPIN IT
Once you find what works, use it! Spin it for future units and lessons. Oftentimes, you can create templates and then tweak them to fit other content or skills. I’ve done this with one of my most creative, favorite lessons of all time: Speed debating. After witnessing the engagement of my original speed debating lesson to practice ethos, pathos, logos, and argumentative structure, I emulated the lesson for other skills and content areas. For example, I used this model to facilitate speed-debating style mini-discussions about facets of the American dream, and I even applied the concept to this peer review rotation activity and a peer editing lesson for students’ cover letters.
You can read more about how I created speed debating here and how you can implement it here.
8. DON’T WAIT UNTIL YOU FEEL “READY.”
Don’t be afraid of trying something new. Don’t wait until you feel ready. You’ll never feel ready! Don’t give yourself too much time to stress and fall into the trap of “what ifs.” Just do it. Your students will thank you later.
Embrace a growth mindset and be honest, transparent, and reflective with your students. Don’t be afraid of failing. My assistant superintendent always speaks of “magnificent failures.” You can even explain this to your students: “Hey, I’m trying something brand new to mix it up!” They’ll appreciate your transparency and your willingness to try things, and if you ask for it, they will give you feedback!
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
When you have an idea, run with it. Trust those late-night genius moments or the crazy “What if?” questions that pop in your brain on the way to school or even during passing periods. Some of my best ideas have been the most spontaneous, last-minute ones. I’ve even changed up ideas halfway through the day. I always like to say, “I don’t know how to teach something until I’ve already taught it.” It’s true. You can’t expect creative genius the first time, but you can reflect and take notes to make your idea even better next year. Teachers are creators who refine their art every year.
If you’re sitting down to lesson plan right now and you want some creative inspiration, you may find some of my other blog posts helpful:
- 10 Ideas for Planning Engaging Novel Units
- 5 Engaging, Student-Centered ELA Strategies to Try This Year